There are two great challenges in reading the Bible: 1) exegesis and 2) hermeneutics.
The task of exegesis is to uncover what the text meant to its original hearers (remember…the Bible was written over 2000 years ago to a different time, place, language, and culture). It may take some work to uncover, but the assumption is that the text cannot mean to us today, something radically different from what it meant to its original readers. Likewise, the original intent of the author is relevant to us today.
But perhaps the most difficult task of reading the Bible is in the task of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is dealing with how to actually interpret and apply the Bible to our current time and place. And there is a lot of difficulty and at times controversy in that. For example, 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 clearly (meaning no grey area) states that a woman should have her head covered. Most faithful Christians no longer practice head coverings for women because we recognize that “head coverings” in the 1st century had significance in a way that it does not today.
Hermeneutics has a lot of challenges with it. It has to ask questions of Scripture like: What is concrete, forever, black and white, commands? What is situationally-specific instructions? What in the Bible is just coincidentally mentioned?
I think every Christian needs to think through and have an understanding and answer to some of the most relevant hermeneutical issues in our day. Take for example the issue of homosexuality. We often quote the Old Testament texts, but there is a rightful issue of hermeneutics. I want you to hear some of the hermeneutical questions that are thrown out (albeit in a mocking tone…but they are still issues nonetheless) in the midst of the conversation.
The following is a letter sent to Dr. Laura Schlesinger, a radio host and observant orthodox Jew, who brought up Leviticus 18:22 and the issue of homosexuality. She then received a letter (side note: The letter was signed, but ultimately proved to be a false name, so its author is unknown) from a listener questioning her use of Leviticus and her hermeneutical methods.
Dear Dr. Laura:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.
1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath.Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?
7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle- room here?
8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
Your adoring fan.
I have some answers to this letter. :-) But the questions themselves are a great challenge to the reality that we have to interpret the text for today. And that process is called hermeneutics. And hermeneutics is often a very difficult task.